Workplace Culture

Gender Parity in the Workplace Is Possible. We Did It; You Can, Too

By Jessica Parisi

Jul. 19, 2018

The conversation about workplace diversity is at the core of having a competitive, winning, market-leading culture.

By a “competitive” culture, I mean one that is both high-performing and big-hearted, one where your people can do the best work of their lives in service of your company’s strategic intent and ambitions.

Let’s focus on gender diversity. A 2015 McKinsey study shows that companies with more women board directors have 53 percent higher return on equity, 42 percent higher return on sales, 42 percent higher return on invested capital.

Yet companies are far from achieving gender parity and the pressure to do so is building. According to a study by executive consultancy Equilar earlier this year, the 3,000 largest U.S. public companies won’t achieve gender parity until 2048. Blackrock, the world’s largest money manager, stated that companies in which it invests must have at least two female directors.

In hopes that some of our steps will be helpful to others, I’ll share what our company, BTS USA, did five years ago to increase the female representation from 16 percent then to 42 percent today. Our approach draws from our own leadership lessons gained in building our firm over the past 30 years, as well as insights gleaned from our work with CEOs focusing on the people side of strategy and seeking to create more diverse and inclusive workspaces in their own companies.

Here are the six steps we took to successfully shift our culture, hire with gender parity, and retain women at BTS USA.

  1. Business leaders owned gender metrics — just like they own the revenue and profit results — not HR.

HR was not responsible for fixing our female-male ratio. We, the leaders of the organization, were responsible, and HR supported the process. I see many companies make the mistake of believing, “Our lack of gender parity is an HR problem.” They then make their CHRO or head of diversity & inclusion responsible for fixing it. If BTS USA had our head of HR own this problem, we wouldn’t have evolved. The business leaders are the ones who set the tone for priorities and what is valued or tolerated, and create the environment for which diverse candidates feel welcomed.

At the beginning, reporting out on the metrics made myself and our other leaders uncomfortable because the data was poor and we were unsure how it happened. Was it us? Was it our fault that we always had many more men than women applying to our consulting positions? Why didn’t we have more parity? It certainly was not intentional. So we on the senior leadership team harnessed this discomfort, did a lot of self-reflection on how we subconsciously were contributing to the problem, and used it to quickly transition into becoming activists for the change.

  1. We required the recruitment team to have an equal number of female and male candidates in the pipeline.

We knew that entry to the funnel and the recruitment pipeline was a key pain point for us. The first reaction from our recruitment team when we told them each recruitment season must have an equal number of male and female candidates was, “This is going to be so hard. We never have more than 25 percent female applicants.” But we reinforced that this was a must, and that the team needed to get creative in making it happen.

They began by applying much more rigor and time in casting a wider net to ensure the early stages of the funnel were equal. We made sure we had women at early university job fairs to attract more female candidates.

Leaders and consultants also felt it was part of their role to be constantly recruiting, instead of it just being HR’s job. We became more active on social networks and with our broader personal networks, always looking for great talent. We offered quarterly bonuses for referrals, of all candidates, to reinforce the help from our consultants to refer candidates who would be a great culture fit.

  1. We altered the recruitment experience to help candidates see people like them in the company.

We leaned heavily on the female leaders and consultants to get more involved in recruitment and the candidate interviewing experience. If women candidates could talk with other women or even just see more women in the interview rooms, they would more naturally feel like they would belong at BTS.

It’s also true that we are a consultancy, and the consulting business has a reputation for being an inflexible work environment and unaccommodating for employees with young children. But in fact, our global CEO is quite progressive and open-minded about letting employees do what they need for their lives. That information was shared to candidates, and I got on the phone with candidates to tell them my story of being a young working mother at BTS.

  1. We eliminated the unconscious bias in our selection process by redesigning our interviewing protocol and processes to have structured questions, behavioral assessments and objective criteria.

Using a data-driven hiring strategy is a critical ingredient in minimizing unconscious bias in the job application and promotion process. Traditional selection and leadership development approaches often end up in a popularity contest with an overemphasis on subjective impressions. “Not a culture fit,” or “didn’t pass the airport test,” has become the easiest way to reject someone. The problem is that those types of assessments often stem from open questions like, “Tell me about yourself?” or “How do you like to spend your free time?”

Such questions leave the interviewer only able to make judgments based on similarities or differences to themselves — appraisals that have nothing to do with role expectations, competence or real culture fit. Similarly, companies have a history of looking for candidates from the same set of universities or similar backgrounds to their current successful leaders, a practice that from the start severely limits the number of candidates who have a real chance at success.

To combat this, we first identified explicit observable behaviors that were critical to the success of the role at our company. These then informed our interview experiences and flow from beginning to end. Each experience had an observer scoring the interviewee against the observable behaviors, which in turn then informed job-fit assessments. Using behavior-based assessments not only eliminated a lot of remaining unconscious bias, but it also resulted in our female candidates scoring as high as our male candidates, whereas in the past they had scored lower in the interview process.

  1. We became much louder and clearer about our flexible, big-hearted values and practices.

BTS is a Scandinavian company with a Scandinavian culture, and all our people get a lot of flexibility in their careers to be able to be present for the life experiences that matter to them and to evolve their careers based on their nonwork responsibilities. This had always been a part of our culture and values and was discussed in one-on-one meetings, but we were forgetting to actively voice this and share what we were doing more broadly.

It was critical for our leaders to get on a megaphone about our flexible values and practices. Our view is that maternity or paternity leave is only a few months in someone’s lifelong career, so we cover for each other during that time. When a new mother returns, if she is still breastfeeding and needs to pump, we continue to cover for her as appropriate. Maybe that means we send an extra person to a client project, or someone takes on a mix of different responsibilities to make it work for this short period of time. It is easy to cover for colleagues in need — much easier than losing an existing employee’s talent and tenure and starting over with a new person.

  1. We leverage discovery-based learning and experiences in our recruitment, onboarding and throughout our people development and change priorities.

Any time you’re trying to drive large-scale transformation, it’s key to run experiments and hands-on learning experiences. There are many reasons for this, but a critical one here is that experiential learning removes the “Imposter Syndrome.” When people get engaged in an experience they tend to forget they “don’t belong” and dive in and perform just as well as their other colleagues. The behaviors exhibited as participants make decisions during the simulation also provide insight into business leadership success factors — including strategy development, data analysis, industry and market savvy, customer centricity, operational focus, profit optimization, critical thinking and more.

Every company’s journey is different, but in instances like ours, just getting to gender parity doesn’t mean the work is over. The entire process is ongoing, challenging work, sometimes requiring interventions, working sessions and coaching. But the difficult work pays off in not only better retention of talent but also in building a richer reservoir of ideas and perspectives, a critical ingredient to a high-performing and big-hearted, market-leading culture.

Jessica Parisi is president and CEO of BTS USA. Parisi started her career at BTS as a business analyst in 1999 and was promoted to lead BTS’s U.S. Western Region and then to managing director of the BTS Leadership Practice. In 2016, she was named president and CEO.

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